China has thousands of Navalnys, hidden from the public

China has thousands of Navalnys, hidden from the public

China has thousands of Navalnys, hidden from the public

After watching “Navalny,” the documentary about Russian opposition leader Aleksei A. Navalny, a Chinese businesswoman sent me a message: “Ren Zhiqiang is the Navalny of China.” She was talking about the retired real estate tycoon who was sentenced to 18 years in prison for criticizing Chinese leader Xi Jinping.

After Mr. Navalny’s tragic death this month, a young dissident living in Berlin posted on X: “Professor Li is the closest to the Chinese version of Navalny. » He was referring to the rebel influencer known as Teacher Li, who used social media to share information about protests in China and now fears for his life.

There are others: Liu Xiaobo, a Nobel Peace Prize winner who died while in government custody in 2017, and Xu Zhiyong, a lawyer serving a 14-year prison sentence for subversion.

The sad reality is that there is no Chinese equivalent of Mr Navalny because there is no opposition party in China, and therefore no opposition leader.

It’s not for lack of trying. Many courageous Chinese people stood up to the world’s most powerful authoritarian government. Since 2000, the non-profit humanitarian organization Duihua You have recorded the cases of 48,699 political prisoners in China, of whom 7,371 are currently in detention. None of them have the same kind of notoriety among the Chinese public as Mr. Navalny does in Russia.

Under President Vladimir V. Putin, Russia is very intolerant of dissent. Mr. Putin imprisons his critics and even hunts them in exile. In China, Navalny’s counterparts as high-profile figures could not exist. They would be silenced and imprisoned long before they could raise awareness.

“Can you imagine the PRC giving high-profile political prisoners the continued access Navalny had to public opinion through various direct and indirect methods? Jerome Cohen, retired New York University law professor, wrote on X, referring to China’s full name, the People’s Republic of China.

This is what members of the Chinese dissident community thought when they learned with sadness and horror the news of Mr. Navalny’s death. His death was tragic and his life heroic. But it was difficult for them to understand the revelations that he was able to send hundreds of handwritten letters from prison. People wrote to him, paying 40 cents a page, and received scans of his responses. A video link of him behind bars during his last court appearance has been posted online.

“Despite increasingly harsh conditions, including repeated stays in solitary confinement,” wrote my colleague Anton Troianovski, “he maintained a presence on social media, while members of his team continued to publish investigations on the corrupt Russian elite since their exile.”

None of this would be possible in China. The names of most Chinese political prisoners are censored online. Once arrested, we never hear from them again. No one can visit them except their direct relatives and their lawyers, although this is not guaranteed. Chinese political prisoners cannot correspond with the outside world and are left to rot behind bars, even though they suffer from health problems – just as Mr. Liu, the Nobel Peace Prize winner, died of cancer liver in advanced stages while in government custody.

Some people call Mr. Ren, the retired real estate tycoon, “China’s Navalny.” He was probably once the most publically known among Chinese political prisoners. He was one of the country’s most influential bloggers on social media, with almost 38 million followers. In 2016, his Weibo account was deleted after he criticized Mr. Xi’s declaration that all Chinese media should serve the party.

Last year, when I told a young Chinese man about it, the man gave me a blank look. He was 15 when Mr. Ren was silenced and had no idea who he was.

I have known Mr. Ren since 2010. But since his arrest in March 2020, I have not had any direct communication with him. Neither do his friends. None of us have direct knowledge of his life in prison.

A few days before his arrest, Mr. Ren told me that he had to have a biopsy due to suspected prostate cancer. For months, I have heard from people who communicate with his family that he is not receiving proper treatment for his prostate problems and that he gets up a dozen times a night to go to the bathroom. I cannot contact his family members because giving interviews to foreign media could get them in trouble.

Gao Zhisheng was a human rights lawyer who spent years in prison and torture, then disappeared in 2017. His family has had no news of him since. No one knows where he is or even if he is alive. Today, very few Chinese people know his name.

“Their disappearance is a common phenomenon” wrote Guo Yushan, an activist who helped lawyer Chen Guangcheng seek asylum in the United States in 2012. “They are pushed to extinction by the system, rejected and protected by the dominant society, forgotten by the public,” Mr. Guo said. “And often, the deeper their resistance, the more complete their disappearance. »

Mr. Guo wrote the words in 2013, the first year of Mr. Xi’s rule, for an organization that provided financial assistance to the families of political prisoners. Such programs would be unimaginable in China today. Mr. Guo himself disappeared from public view after being released from nearly a year of detention in 2015.

In a society as tightly controlled as China under Mr. Xi, it is impossible for anyone to have the kind of influence that Mr. Navalny had. The Communist Party’s greatest fear lies in organizations and individuals who might challenge its power. This is why he doesn’t like religious groups or non-governmental organizations. He fears entrepreneurs who he believes have the financial power and organizational skills to pose a threat to the party.

It extinguishes any sparks that could potentially turn into a prairie fire.

Right now, he seems to be obsessed with Master Li, a social media influencer with a cat avatar. Li Ying is a painter who in 2022 has turned its Twitter account into a self-sustaining news hub that informs the Chinese public about information they don’t get from the heavily censored media and internet. This week he urged his supporters in China to unfollow him as police questioned some of them. In one day, the number of his supporters fell from 1.6 million to 1.4 million.

Mr. Li, who lives in Milan, told me last year that he was preparing psychologically for the possibility of being assassinated.

Russia learned from China how to exert control over its population in the age of social media. It has blocked most major Western platforms, except YouTube, since its invasion of Ukraine two years ago. With the death of Mr. Navalny, the most prominent opposition figure, it could be difficult for other opposition leaders, most of them in exile, to build a national base as he did.

Regardless of the different forms of authoritarianism they face, Russian and Chinese political prisoners share the aspiration that their country is not doomed and that it becomes normal, democratic and free.

They are all Navalnys.

Mr. Navalny chose to return to Russia even though he knew he would be arrested. Xu Zhiyong, the lawyer serving a 14-year prison sentence, made a similar choice.

In 2013, I wrote in a trial between home and prison, he chose the latter. It was a painful choice for him, but he felt he couldn’t make the decision he did. After being released from prison in 2017, he said, he was ready to go back.

“For many years” I wrote on January 1, 2020, “I thought about what would be more valuable to my country: staying in prison or staying out. »

A month later he was arrested again.